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Worldbuilding with Tananarive Due


Photo by Daniel Ebon

For our concluding interview in my Ways into Worldbuilding series, I am honored to welcome a distinguished voice in fantasy and science fiction, Tananarive Due.

Tananarive Due is an author, screenwriter and educator who is a leading voice in black speculative fiction. Her short fiction has appeared in best-of-the-year anthologies of science fiction and fantasy. She is the former Distinguished Visiting Lecturer at Spelman College (2012-2014) and teaches Afrofuturism and creative writing at UCLA. She also teaches in the creative writing MFA program at Antioch University Los Angeles. The American Book Award winner and NAACP Image Award recipient is the author of twelve novels and a civil rights memoir. In 2010, she was inducted into the Medill School of Journalism’s Hall of Achievement at Northwestern University. She also received a Lifetime Achievement Award in the Fine Arts from the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation. Her first short story collection, Ghost Summer, published in 2015, won a British Fantasy Award.

Aside from reader expectations, why do you build worlds? Is it more of an obligation than a pleasure? If the latter, what is enjoyable or rewarding about this aspect?

All storytelling, to me, is worldbuilding–even if it’s our mundane world, we have to create the specific world of that character. But in terms of broader worldbuilding in my speculative fiction, since scope is not my natural strength, I am very character-focused i.e. what world would create this person? Or what interactions with the world would tell the best story for this character? I’m thinking specifically of my African Immortals series, where I was pulled out of my comfort zone in each book to expand the world for my characters. This also has bearing on my post-apocolyptic stories “Herd Immunity” and “Carriers.”

How important is worldbuilding in your stories? Is it a goal for you to create an innovative world, or do you favor having the milieu sit more comfortably in the background?

Yes, the BACKGROUND is where I’m most comfortable. When I write science fiction, especially, it’s just enough seasoning of futurism to be credible so I can tell my story–and often near-future at that.

Do you apply any sort of process to worldbuilding? How does a coherent world emerge in your work?

I write about human characters, to my first steps are built on my understanding of sociology and psychology in OUR world. “Wherever we go, there we are.” So any world I create cannot go counter to human nature. So if it’s a world with a specific kind of magic or technology, I start with asking myself why people would build this world or how they would use it.

Describe a milieu from one your works, and the aspects you found most rewarding. Which ones did readers comment on the most?

My African Immortals series is probably my most popular “world”–a sect of immortal Africans in an underground colony in Lalibela, Ethiopia. Their world involves advanced technology, telepathy, and healing blood (magic).

What kind of worldbuilding tropes are you tired of? Please share a couple of worlds that have especially impressed you.

I have seen changes in this trend, but I’m tired of worldbuilding that is exclusionary, i.e. the original Star Wars, which neglected to show a multiracial universe. Too often, aliens stand in for minority groups–and there’s no need for that, when actual black and brown people can also appear. I admire the worldbuilding in Octavia Butler, where she veers between aliens, dystopian futures and vampires to show the dangers of hierarchy and power dynamics. Her books are also always multiracial.

In a series, do you lay in mysteries, trusting that readers will be intrigued and look forward to learning the answer in later books? How do you feel about making the reader wait to learn important world features?

In my case, if a world feature pops up in Book 2 or Book 3, it’s only because I didn’t think of it earlier. **smile** But in all seriousness, sometimes I respond to questions from primary readers (like my husband, Steven Barnes) to account for features of the world that don’t quite seem consistent with human psychology, etc. If he asks, “But why are the immortals–who are mostly men–so docile in their colony?” I have to explain that later.

Do you consciously work against reader expectations for a milieu? If so, please give an example of a surprise you brought in to a familiar setting, and how successful you think it was.ghost-summer-final

I do like an almost-like-our-world in my storytelling approach, i.e. everything is like our world except this ONE small difference (though, depending on the difference, that can be hard to pull off). I don’t know how well it succeeds, but in my short story “Vanishings” I wanted to explore a world where death means the literal vanishing of the body, and “paleness” in illness means you’re literally fading away. So my story explores a family’s confusion and denial when the father never came home–is he dead, or did he run away? And how that confusion enables denial.

Any peeks you’re willing to disclose about your next world or what we might learn about the milieu in your next story?

My novel-in-progress is set in the fictitious town I explore in my short story collection, Ghost Summer, where magic exists and has a special impact on children.


About this series. Ways into Worldbuilding is a series of interviews I conducted in the summer and fall of 2016 with sf/f writers, asking about their opinions on, and approach to, creating fictional worlds, especially fantasy worlds.

Previous interviews:

L.E. Modesitt

Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Martha Wells

C.S.E. Cooney

Louise Marley

Django Wexler

Sharon Shinn

World Fantasy Award Winners

The winners of the 2016 World Fantasy Awards:


David G. Hartwell







Andrzej Sapkowski








* Anna Smaill, The Chimes (Sceptre)









* Kelly Barnhill, The Unlicensed Magician (PS Publishing)








* Alyssa Wong, “Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers,” (Nightmare magazine, Oct. 2015)









* Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Paula R. Stiles, eds., She Walks in Shadows (Innsmouth Free Press)



Silvia Moreno-Garcia


Paula R. Stiles








* C. S. E. Cooney, Bone Swans (Mythic Delirium Books)

 C.S.E. Cooney


* Galen Dara









* Stephen Jones, for The Art of Horror (Applause Theatre Book Publishers)









* John O’Neill, for Black Gate: Adventures in Fantasy Literature









Richly deserved congratulations to all!

World Fantasy Con: My schedule

Excited to be leaving for World Fantasy Convention on Thursday! The programming line-up looks especially interesting. After judging the World Fantasy Awards this year, I’m looking forward to the panels on differing types of fantasy and the diverse opportunities they give us as readers and writers.

My schedule:


12:00 – Panel – UNION AB

Trilogies? Small Stuff! The challenges and triumphs of writing a long, multi-volume series. What should someone starting a long series know at the outset? Lee Modesitt, David Drake, David Coe (m), Sharon Shinn, Mercedes Lackey and me.


2:30 – Reading – UNION C

I’ll read from my upcoming release from Saga Press: At the Table of Wolves, book 1 of a paranormal espionage series set in the thirties in England and Europe.


3:30 – Judges panel – UNION AB

Check out the full programming here.

Some of the authors who’ll be there:

Port Townsend Photographer

Louise Marley

Lee-pic3B (1)

Lee Modesitt

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Sharon Shinn

C.S.E. Cooney

C.S.E. Cooney

The Cozy Con with Big Inspiration

Robert Dugoni

Robert Dugoni

What do Robert Dugoni, Agent Rachel Letofsky, and memoirist Bonnie J. Rough all have in common? A: They’ll all be in Wenatchee WA for Write on the River in 5 weeks!

Join us on the sunny side of Washington State for a day-and-a-half conference on the beautiful campus of Wenatchee Valley College. The Write on the River Conference annually attracts approximately 120  writers to learn from the experts, including New York Times best-selling authors like Robert Dugoni and Rebecca Zanetti. Read More…

SF Trading Card Winners

You know you want to be on my newsletter mailing list (4-5 times/year) for the giveaways and insider information. Last time, I offered a drawing for cool packets of Walter Day Science Fiction Trading cards. Also, remember that if you sign up for my newsletter I’ll send you a free short story.

And the trading card winners are (drumroll here):

Thomas Morrow and bn100. Congrats to both! I’ll be in touch today to ask for addresses.

My thanks to all who entered!